By the time that I had showered again and kicked my sweatpants and t-shirt in the direction of the laundry hamper, and dressed in clean pressed khaki slacks and a dark gray sweater, Mother and Uncle Bodie were home for the day. Uncle Bodie intercepted me in the hall, whispering. "John's flights went okay. He'll be here by about seven. Can you lure Sully out of her study then? He wants her to go in there and find him waiting for her."
I grinned. "Of course. I have the exact ruse in mind already." I hesitated, a thought occurring to me. "We should send her back to her study alone, and let them talk privately then, shouldn't we?"
"Yeah," he said. "He's going to sympathize with her about Gabe, and she's probably going to cry. She won't want witnesses."
"Okay," I nodded. "See you at supper."
The throng in Aunt Sully's study had grown. Marca and Oesha were yapping about their fervors and fears over starting driving lessons in March, the earliest Mother would allow them. Kelsa and Michel were giggling and rattling about school and the idiosyncrasies of their teachers. There didn't seem to be much room for me, but I wasn't really unhappy. I knew that I was the favored nephew, and that after the initial flurry of greeting, I'd have plenty of time to talk to her. Well, then again, maybe not, if Uncle John was going to be here. Still, I'd have bet a large sum that Aunt Sully would make time for me.
"Eleanor Roosevelt?" Aunt Sully asked me, as I entered the room.
"I'll tell you about her later, if you don't mind, when there aren't so many cooties in attendance."
"Cooties!" exclaimed Kelsa in indignation. "Who are you calling a cootie?"
Ignoring her, I asked Aunt Sully, "Is there anything I can get for you? The dinner menu is roast lamb and rice, broccoli with cheese sauce, salad, of course, and for dessert, cheesecake high-rises with raspberry sauce."
"Oh, lamb, that's terrific," she said. "Perfect season for it. Reminds me of when I was little, and we had venison if the neighbors had extra."
"He's not going to put that shitty mint sauce on it, is he?" Kelsa questioned irritably.
"I am assured it will be on the side, for those who would like to eat it." I had no idea why he would continue to make it; none of us even touched it, kids or adults. It smelled like green Nyquil cold medicine and tasted worse. Some day, if I had any say in the matter, the chef would only make foods that the residents of the mansion liked. There had to be a lot of wastage in stuff he presented that no one ate.
"Don't say 'shitty', " Oesha murmured. "Not in front of adults."
"That's exactly right," Aunt Sully agreed. "Trash language is for your own generation, and is inappropriate across generations. I, for instance, would not say 'shit' to your Grandmother Claire." "You just said 'shit' in front of us," Michel crowed. "We're not your generation."
"Only as a teaching example," she replied coolly. "That doesn't count."
Marca started to say, "So if I say in front of my elders, 'We should not say "shit" or "damn" or "fu --' " she stopped as Oesha elbowed her in the ribs.
"And that law only works in certain generational directions."
We left the upstairs for the dining room, and met Grandmother Claire there. She hugged Aunt Sully and spoke to her in French. I think she said, "My dear daughter," but I wasn't sure. What Aunt Sully said in reply was in whispers, and I couldn't catch it.
Mother stood behind the chair at the head of the table, with Uncle Bodie to her right, and Grandmother Claire to her left. Beside Grandmother, Aunt Sully took her place. I staked my place beside Uncle Bodie, so that I could be across from Aunt Sully. I didn't take thought of hereditary precedence at that time, and I don't think my siblings, did, either. I had just always sat across from Aunt Sully, except at formal dinners with outsiders (-- outsiders -- isn't that telling?). At 4:45 pm, the dishes were brought in. Mother had given orders that a soup course was unnecessary at family dinners, so we began with the main dish.
The lamb was roasted to perfection, and the broccoli was delicious. The rice was far overdone, however, and after Grandmother Claire had tasted it, she asked, "Has anyone ever taught him to cook rice?"
"He's done all right before," my mother said. "Perhaps this evening he was distracted by something."
"Like the broccoli catching fire, I'm sure," mumbled Grandmother Claire. She poked Aunt Sully with her elbow. "I say we should shoot him now, n'est-ce pas?"
"Well, we should at least allow him the possibility of redemption by dessert, don't you think?"
"The dessert, and then we shoot him afterwards, no matter what," said Grandmother.
Aunt Sully appeared to think about it. "Do you still maintain a firing squad here at the estate?"
"Damn," my grandmother said in a low voice. "All these little details."
Aunt Andersol was once again, conspicuously not in evidence. A plate had been set out for an addition to the attendees, but she had not appeared.
The adults darted little serious glances at each other throughout the dinner, but none of them mentioned Aunt Andersol by name. Instead, we kids were subjected to a questioning about the nature of school for each of us, complete with samples of what we had been learning and profiles of our classmates, as though we could do so without language offensive for the dinner table. It was only over dessert and coffee that the conversation turned to truly interesting fare: the Attic Dig and what it might divulge.
Grandmother was as curious as the rest of us. In her time at the mansion, the only storage option was the southwesternmost wing on the second storey, an area that was still kept closed and locked at all times. In an aside to Aunt Sully, she suggested that next week, when the building inspector was done with his walk through, the shriveled corpses of her mother-in-law's victims would be found in steamer trunks tucked away in the darkest corners. Aunt Sully laughed loudly; obviously she and Grandmother had some sort of inside joke on the subject.
Mother seemed a bit irritated by Aunt Sully's laughter, and stood, signaling an end to the dinner. Marca wandered off to watch television in her room, Michel and Kelsa went to arrange artwork in their studio, and Oesha took her place at Grandmother's side and ambled off to the elevator with her. As Mother headed upstairs with Uncle Bodie in close attendance, Aunt Sully turned to me and said, "Do you have the time to tell me about how you came to meet Eleanor Roosevelt, or would you rather not?"
"Ah, Eleanor, the patroness of the revitalization of America," I said. "It involves a school bus, a time warp, a history text, and a couple of nosy seventh-graders. Shall we adjourn to your study for the tale?"
She laughed with me, and whatever tiny shred of jealousy I may have had at her jest with Grandmother dissipated: I was also part of her inner circle, able to dip my feet in the same pool of humor. We went upstairs to her study, which was pleasantly warm after the chill of downstairs in autumn, and I told her how I had met Rachel Owen.
"Well," she said, when I had brought my story up to date, "I can understand why you introduced yourself with a pseudonym. But unless she has a mature understanding of relationships and a great sense of humor, you're screwed, Owen."
"Thank you, dear Aunt. That is so reassuring."
"The good news is," she continued, "that if she doesn't have a mature understanding of relationships and a sense of humor, you're better off not messing with her."
"Ah, I know that, I suppose. Still, until she knew who I was, really, she seemed like she could be a good friend."
"I know that your background is a heavy burden at times. Your grandmother Ambris -- my mother -- was never able to get past it. She cut herself off from your mother because she could never believe that the marriage would work out. She wouldn't have much to do with you kids because she couldn't deal with the potential loss."
"But you dealt with it. Didn't you worry about that?" It was a rare moment of frankness, and I suddenly wanted desperately to hear about my parents' marriage.
"God, no," she said, sincerely. "Your father loved your mother so much he just about walked on his hands backwards to make her smile. He would have done anything for her."
"Aunt Sully?" said Kelsa's voice from the doorway, right on cue. "Would you like to see our artwork?"
To my surprise, she looked at me to see if I was agreeable to the suggestion. "Yes! By all means, let us see this display." She had looked to me! Had I said, "Perhaps later," I do believe she would have gently declined Kelsa's invitation. It was a heady feeling, being treated like an adult.
On the other hand, being treated like an adult implied a lack of being protected. I knew that I still was under the sheltering wing of my mother and aunt, but I had a shiver at the thought of being out in the open, on my own.
She toured Michel and Kelsa's studio slowly, focusing her attention on their work as though it was her job, or perhaps her vocation. Their oil paintings were first; Aunt Sully stopped before one of Michel's floral subjects, her lower jaw hanging. "Holy smokes, Michel that's great!"
He was puzzled, as much as Kelsa and I were.
"Did you deliberately use that bright color for the fuchsia blossom against the dark background?' she asked.
"Uhh, no, it just sort of stood out." He said, not knowing how to discuss his art.
"Good job!" she said, and then moved on to their pencil sketches, their watercolors, their colored-paper mosaics.
"And then there's this," Michel crowed, kicking his studio computer into play, showing her his Adobe Photoshop graphics.
"Okay, I suddenly feel like a moron," she said. "You have to show me how you've done this."
"Mine, too," chimed Kelsa, using the mouse to click on her computer's files.
"You guys are basically painting, but on your computers," she observed.
"Yeah, it's great," said Michel enthusiastically. "If you make a mistake, all you have to do is hit Alt - Control - Z!!"
Uncle Bodie ducked his head in the door and showed me a thumbs-up sign. Michel saw him too.
"Aunt Sully?" Michel asked, humbly. "We have to put all this stuff away before bedtime. Do you mind?"
"No, of course not," she said. "Can I help you?"
I cleared my throat. "I'll help them. Your presence is required in your study."
"What?" she asked, but acquiesced, and followed me back to her haven.
"JOHN!" she cried as she rounded the corner.
I closed the door of her study, and returned to my room.
When I was little, I adored my Aunt Sully, and wanted to marry her when I grew up. She seemed to be the only one who really listened to what I had to say, the only one who really understood what I was trying to say. Well, Father did listen attentively, and he sort of understood, but he was mostly serious, whereas Aunt Sully could be counted on to laugh and play, and know my moods and fears without me having to explain them.
Mother came home to stay after my father's death, but she was so busy with her job at the university that she didn't have a lot of time for us; even when she did have time, she was perplexed as to what to do with us, and frequently seemed to chafe at an invisible chain until we could be dismissed to bed or homework. Aunt Sully was there, every weekend at least, and when she was there, Mother was less nervous, both around us and around the staff. We would listen at doorways to Mother complaining about people in her department, about what had to be done around the house and grounds, about Nanny's facial expressions.
From my father's journal, which began in January of the year he died, I knew that he discussed the workings of the estate with my aunt; she often accompanied us on outings to parks or events, giving Nanny a day off to rest now and then. She attended formal dinners at my father's side: some of his entries spoke of her assessments of people after she'd met and talked to them. Suddenly it was apparent to me that I was not the only one that Aunt Sully listened to. Grandmother Claire was a regular jokester when my aunt was in residence; my siblings, especially Kelsa and Michel loved her company, too. Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol were giddier, Redell snappier, the staff more professional ...
Maybe Uncle John listened to her like she listened to all of us. No wonder she was glad to see him, as glad as we always were to see her.
When I was little, I wanted to marry her, as I have said. But now, recognizing her understanding heart, I decided that when I grew up, what I really wanted was to be like her.